They live under a completely different system and they have beliefs Western audience can’t understand, but underneath that life goes on.
“Have you ever tried to do a cartwheel on concrete?” In one of two extra features on his A State of Mind DVD, writer/director Daniel Gordon talks to CNN reporter Alina Cho about a striking moment in his film. Scores of North Korean Mass Games trainees are performing gymnastics on a cement quadrangle, all girls, ranging from young to disturbingly young (some under 10). They maneuver their developing bodies into beautiful, odd positions. The girls could look like any Olympics-ready competitors, were it not for their dangerous training ground and their event, a celebration of the nationalist ideal, so painstakingly precise that one sore foot out of line undermines the political structure.
The film shows this pressure as it affects 13-year-old Pak Hyon Su and 11-year-old Kim Song Yon. Images of their training and family lives reveal they are essentially locked away from the rest of the world. (There is no Internet in North Korea, and all media are controlled by Kim Jong Il’s pro-communist, anti-U.S. administration.) The girls work tirelessly in the hopes that they might perform for their leader—it’s what they live for. Still, they appear generally happy, great friends who are supported by their families.
The British Gordon and his crew are the first “outsiders” to document life inside this structured society. They let their subjects speak for themselves, which creates a complex and troubling picture. The families endure varied hardships stemming from their socialist government (rationed food, government housing), and we witness the daily anti-U.S. propaganda in their schools, through radio piped into their homes that cannot be switched off, and via nightly power outages apparently carried out to prepare North Korean families for the threat of U.S. invasion.
In North Korea, the documentary shows, individual thought is considered “subversive,” counter to collective interests. The Mass Games celebrate this mentality. Millions of man-hours go into Games preparations, and approximately a million citizens participate in the events. More than 80,000 gymnasts perform on Pyongyang’s gymnasium floor at one time. To complement the performers, additional thousands of school children create mosaics depicting their leader with squares of cardboard, all turned over in perfectly timed unison. It’s an enormous, glorious metaphor for teamwork and for communism, disrupted by any out-of-sync individual.
Even without many personal freedoms, the Pak and Kim families find ways to express themselves. Hyon Su confesses that in she ran away from gym training as a child to play with her friends. Her mother didn’t tell her father, in order to keep Hyon Su out of trouble: “No matter how strictly her father and her grandmother bring her up, I have maternal love,” she says, “So, I pamper her a lot. Sometimes she lies to her father and only tells me things in secret.” Hyon Su returns her love when she compares her mother to “one of her classmates.”
They share much joy and laughter during their interviews, and their day-to-day reality seems remarkably familiar. A mother reminds her daughter to do homework, parents talk with admiration about their growing children, kids are cheeky. Indeed, family life in North Korea resembles Western ideals: they eat dinner together and discuss their lives and their thoughts.
Some of these thoughts are imposed on them. Hyon Su and Song Yon’s generation has grown up with anti-U.S. sentiment thrust upon them; images of dead and dying countrymen on display at a Korean war museum in Pyongyang encourage them to rally against the perpetrators of such violence, similar to 9/11 images in the West, and Al Jazeera TV news throughout the Arab world. A State of Mind reveals just how cleverly North Korea’s leaders have gone about keeping their nation independent and their citizens united. It looks like brainwashing to us because it’s overt and extreme, but we’re victims of it, too. Based on our own histories, how can anyone outside North Korea see its people apart from recent news images, in which Kim Jong Il appears strange and threatening?
And though the film shows North Korea’s condemnation of the West, the broader, more affecting theme here is Hyon-Su’s almost inadvertent rebellion. She fulfills a “Western” ideal in this. While Song Yon hardly complains, Hyon Su admits she “hates” the intensification of her training as performance dates approach. Though she’s proud to be part of this well-choreographed group, she doesn’t think primarily in terms of obeisance, no matter how precise and perfect her movements may be. Her face is often strained, and she notes at one point just how tough the training is on her body. Still, she says the honor of performing in front of Kim Jog Il inspires her to train through the pain.
By film’s end, after Hyon Su strains her feet on concrete for months, Kim Jong Il does not attend any of her or Song Yon’s performances. The girls’ confusion and extreme disappointment is all too visible. This is individual heartbreak, vivid and affecting. Still, as per their leader’s wishes, both Hyon Su and Song Yon are back in training the very next day.